Talking about music - and the personalities who perform

Music Talks: Conversations with Musicians, by Helen Epstein. New York: McGraw-Hill. 241 pp. $17. 92. Mozart said remarkably little about music. The great composers tended, by and large, to let their music do the talking. Modern performers, who have become the cult figures of the concert hall, replacing the composers themselves in the limelight, follow a different path. They talk endlessly - about music, about the business, but mostly about themselves.

In the introduction to her book, ``Music Talks: Conversations with Musicians,'' free-lance writer Helen Epstein makes passing note of this fact, and the social-cultural mechanism responsible for it: ``Musicians who refuse to be marketed like exotic fruit and who are not ready, or perhaps able, to appear jovial on television talk shows ... may never get to perform at Carnegie Hall.''

The music world is not short of willing talkers eager to spend some time with a journalist. Consequently, Miss Epstein had plenty of sources when gathering material for her frequently interesting, sometimes annoying collection of short-to-long pieces on such subjects as Vladimir Horowitz, a conducting school, the Marlboro Music Festival, James Galway, and a big-time orchestra musician.

In Epstein's hands, these subjects often come to life. Her eye for portraiture (Leonard Bernstein's face with its ``tremendous world weariness and paradoxical curiosity, its arrogance and vulnerability, its quick intelligence and heavy, overriding sensuality,'' for instance) and her familiarity with the music world serve her and the reader well.

She also possesses the restraint to let self-portraiture override the writer's impulse to indulge in descriptive prose.

This last talent makes the lead interview, with Horowitz, a jewel - clearly faceted and shining out with sudden insights. Horowitz knows himself well; and he is very sure in his reasoning: ``A concert is not a lecture. For me, the intellect is always the guide but not the goal of the performance. If a composer is too intellectual, like some modern composers, I don't get it.... You can write a fugue like Bach and you can write a fugue like, pardon me, Hindemith. A soulless fugue.''

Whatever the merits of a Hindemith fugue, it's worth the price of admission to listen to Horowitz ruminate about them.

Unfortunately, such observations appear infrequently. Far too little is said about music, and far too much about musicians. The title notwithstanding, it is not music but musicians that one hears talking. A fundamental mistake is being made. And you can find the root of it in the book's introduction, when Epstein writes: ``I like to think that people who ... every time they perform, are engaged in a re-creation of life, are closer than the rest of us to immortality.''

Epstein occasionally lets the reader in on the fact that there may be more sheer ego than inspiration behind the pronouncements (and performances) of many ``great'' concert-hall artists. She does a pretty masterly job of showing such egomania in full flower in her portrait of Bernstein. In the end, she falls under the mystique of his guru-cum-genius aura: ``He is one of the few artists living who move us and provoke us to question how we feel, what we see and hear, what form we give to life in art.''

Epstein and her book are at their best when they get furthest from the theatricality of musical personalities. Her piece on the legendary violin teacher Dorothy DeLay - who taught, among others, Itzhak Perlman and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg - takes a serious subject seriously, with satisfying results. Not so successful is the attempt to explain Marlboro, where musical philosophy is more important than the performer's personality. She seems more at home chronicling the charms of James Galway and rooting through the events that gave shape to Yo-Yo Ma's inner self.

We see composers and their music standing in the shadows of this book, waiting for a chance at a hearing.

Christopher Swan is on the Monitor staff.

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